Ben Campanaro & Daniel Restuccio
Issue: July 1, 2010


With version CS5, Adobe After Effects finally has an upgrade with features for visual effects artists. Migration to a 64-bit application, 3D LUTS and the roto brush are just some of the new tools that will make shot production easier.   

- One of the most significant upgrades ever made to AE
- Capability of getting shots done faster being more creative
- Mocha Shape
- Requires you to rethink your entire pipeline workflow:  hardware, operating system, software, plug-ins, renderfarm.
- Memory allocation should be automatic or at least have presets for different configurations
- 3D LUTS: only two formats supported as of now.


So what does After Effects moving to 64-bit really mean? It means that you can do a lot of things more efficiently than before, and it also means that you can do things that you simply could not do before. Both After Effects CS5 and Premiere Pro were completely rewritten to take advantage of the virtually unlimited memory access that you can get in a 64-bit work environment.
Photoshop, After Effects, and Premiere Pro are now the three key 64-bit applications in Adobe's CS5 Production Premium that will run larger 2K and 4K projects in an integrated workflow. However making this jump is not just about upgrading to CS5, chances are you will want to update your hardware to multi-core machines running Windows 7 or Snow Leopard on the Mac. Purchase the best machine with as much RAM as you can afford. Realize that fewer cores with more memory is better than more cores with less memory.
When you launch AE CS5, your first stop should be in the Preferences dialogue. The settings you choose under “Memory & Multiprocessing” are now more important than ever before, and make a world of difference in determining the worth in spending the money to upgrade your computer. A simple checkbox activates additional cores to “Render Multiple Frames Simultaneously,” and most users will instinctively spread out the workload to as many processors as they have available. However, depending on the system and the kind of work you're doing, better performance will come from balancing out the system by assigning the optimal amount of cores with as much memory as possible to those cores. While the online Help links to information explaining how to find this perfect equilibrium, it would be great if the next update of After Effects did more to walk the user through the process of configuring these memory settings, or analyzed the system and took care of the entire process on its own. A way to save the memory configurations as presets would be a helpful addition to the current process.
Testing for this review was on a 12-core Hewlett-Packard Z800 with 24GB of RAM. While this is an amazing machine to work on, you will still see improvements to your workflow from previous versions on any multi-core machine with more than 4GB of memory. That being said, when working on HDTV or digital cinema projects there are distinct advantages to literally maxing out the machine with 96GB or even 192GB RAM. Keep in mind however, as with multiple cores, when utilizing a renderfarm, it's all for one, one for all. Maxing out RAM on a primary workstation can quickly spoil an artist, and it's likely that projects will be constructed that can only be rendered on machines with equal specs. Upgrading to a 64-bit only pipeline means that every third party plug-in also needs to be updated, most of which require additional cost.
The magic that the 64-bit environment gets you is in caching. That little green bar that usually chases itself across the Timeline, rendering only a small section of the shot at a time, now can extend a lot further. As tested, a 10-bit .DPX sequence output at 2048x1024 from a 4K Red One source could only be cached for less than five seconds in the 32-bit environment of AE CS4. Now with CS5, nearly 50 seconds of similar footage can be loaded into memory and scrubbed in realtime. This ability to playback an entire sequence at full resolution rather than having to watch it in snippets allows an effects artist to be more creative and more productive; presenting the true timing of what's being created without having one's attention broken by waiting for something to cache. An extended title sequence can be viewed as a whole, while short FX shots can be seen in context within the edit. The extra memory also allows artists to meet the always-increasing resolutions of digital cinema, and handle the complex math required when compositing High Dynamic Range Imagery into shots in a 32-bit float color space.
Whether for HDTV or digital cinema, the daily work of a visual effects compositor includes a number of specific tasks that After Effects is ideal for. As budgets continue to tighten in today's economy, one technique that is ever-increasing in popularity is the background replacement, or “virtual set,” shooting actors over greenscreen. Every chroma-key shot is normally run through the compositing pipeline of tracking, grain reduction & keying, rotoscoping, compositing, then finally rendering.


With most television and film productions these days, time, budget, and creative decisions rarely yield visual effects plates that are without the need for tedious tracking and roto work. Often times a virtual set shot will require roto for any reflective objects, as well as mattes to separate areas of different focal depth. Imagineer System's Mocha for AE, with its industry-standard planar tracking technology, is a fantastic companion to After Effects, and has seen some improvements of its own with the CS5 upgrade. The program is also now optimized for 64-bit to allow for entire shots to be cached and retained in memory while working. To be able to scrub through shots by hand saves a great deal of time when reviewing and adjusting Mocha's tracks. It also helps when taking advantage of the other major addition with this release: Mocha Shape. Through the included Mocha Shape plug-in, CS5 users can now copy and paste rotoscope mattes from Mocha directly into AE, skipping the hassle of having to render the mattes as an image sequence. Mocha's tracker works best on objects that do not drastically change shape. Attaching a second roto spline to these tracks will often only require a few keyframes to create a perfect roto matte.


While Mocha has the hard-edged type roto covered, the new Roto Brush in After Effects is designed for matting the organic. The Roto brush is an ambitious new tool in AE CS5 that works in a similar fashion to Photoshop's Quick Selection tool. Through a complicated image analysis, it selects objects based on a few user-painted strokes and detects their movement over time. For creating general outline mattes on objects, an enormous amount of creative work can be done with the Roto Brush that was not practical before. Isolating areas of the frame for separate color correction passes can be extremely fast with the tool. That being said, the Roto Brush will not likely put anyone out of a job in its current state. The algorithm the software uses to detect the edge of an "object" is simply not as good as the human eye. It seems to work best on shapes that are slowly but continuously changing, in flatly-lit scenes. Any background color spill or light wrap on an object can result in a matte with a choppy edge that requires tedious user refinement. The Roto Brush is a great addition to the user's belt for specific situations, but it is not the be-all, end-all matting revelation that most compositors would dream of.
As a companion to the Roto Brush, CS5 also includes a new edge filtering effect, “Refine Matte.” Moving into the territory long helped by third party plug-ins, such as Red Giant's Key Correct Pro, Refine Matte includes a handy set of controls to choke, feather, reduce chatter, and add motion blur to a layer's alpha channel. In addition, it has some automatic edge coloring options to help remove spill that can save tons of time on some shots.


For HDTV effects production, 3D LUTs (color correction presets used to emulate a shot’s final look) are often too rare a privilege. With final color timing being done immediately before a show's delivery, effects artists can sometimes focus on areas of a shot that will later be made invisible by tweaks by the colorist, or vice-versa. With film pipelines, LUTs will often be delivered with the effects plates, and updated as versions of effects are incorporated into the edit. CS5's aptly named “Apply Color LUT” effect, when applied to an adjustment layer, allows the compositor to view his/her work with the same rose-colored glasses that will be applied once the shot is delivered. It's great that AE is able to read two of the more popular LUT formats (.cube and .3dl), but it's surprising that one still has to work through the third-party Color Finesse plug-in for additional compatibility and to export LUTs. In the next update it would be great if the LUT viewer was incorporated into every display window like the exposure control. Additional functionality to display and/or edit a loaded LUT, and even invert its affects would also be handy for effects artists.


This is the After Effects everyone has been yearning for. It will allow you to do things unimaginable until now.  However to do the impossible you have to leave your comfort zone. The upgrade to CS5 will be a little bumpy, but probably worth it.  One thing for sure is if you can make the investment it will be a lot of fun finding out.
Ben Campanaro is a visual effects compositor at Eden Effects in Los Angeles. He was recently nominated for a primetime Emmy for his work on The Ghost Whisperer. Daniel Restuccio is West Coast editor for Post Magazine and faculty at California Lutheran University.